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EFSAS Commentary

With two big elections coming up, a look at where Bangladesh stands today


The Bangladesh Election Commission announced this past week that election for the next President of Bangladesh will be held on 19 February. The tenure of the current President Abdul Hamid, who was elected unopposed for a second term on February 6, 2018, is coming to an end on 23 April, and the Bangladesh constitution stipulates that the new President has to be elected between 60 to 90 days before the end of the tenure of the incumbent. The constitution does not allow for more than two terms for the post of President. Nomination for the post for the 19 February election is required to be done on 12 February, and voting will take place in the Bangladesh Parliament, the Jatiya Sangsad, on the afternoon of election day. If senior sources of Sheikh Hasina Wazed’s ruling Awami League (AL) party who have been quoted in recent media reports are to be believed, Bangladesh could soon boast of having not just a woman as Prime Minister, but also another as President, a rare and welcome feat. These AL sources have revealed that despite some other senior party leaders such as Matiya Chowdhury, Amir Hossain Amu, and Obaidul Quader having come into consideration, the AL leadership has decided to nominate Shirin Sharmin Chowdhury, the young Speaker of the Jatiya Sangsad since 2013, for the post.

While the post of President, who is the Head of State, is a largely ceremonial one, a more weighty event in the form of the general elections is slated to be held early next year. In the run-up to these elections, Bangladesh is experiencing closer international intention as the fallout of the Ukraine War is being felt more clearly even in distant Asia. Internally, large protest rallies have been organized by the political opposition, mainly the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) and the banned Islamist Jamaat-e-Islami Bangladesh (JEI), in an attempt to regain relevance and counter the positivity that the political stability, the much improved socio-economic indices, and the transformation of the law and order situation in the country has lent to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina since she returned to power in January 2009.

The external pressures that Bangladesh has come under since Russia invaded Ukraine last year reached such proportions that an exasperated Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen felt it necessary to caution that his country did not want any foreign interference in Dhaka’s internal affairs. He asserted that “We’re a mature country. We’re a sovereign country. We are an independent country”, and that Bangladesh would be happier without prescriptions on democracy and human rights as these were deeply rooted in the country’s DNA. Abdul Momen stressed that the current government was committed to holding free, fair, transparent and inclusive elections under the independent Election Commission of Bangladesh, but welcomed constructive opinions from foreign friends.

The escalating competition between the United States (US) and China in the last few years has meant that Bangladesh has had to carefully balance its relationship with these countries. Dhaka views both as important for Bangladesh’s long-term interests, and would like cordiality and cooperation with each.  Bangladesh’s economy is highly dependent on the US, which is the largest market for Bangladeshi goods. Bangladesh is also one of the largest recipients of US assistance in Asia. At the same time, Bangladesh’s economic relationship with China is strong, and Beijing’s trade, investment, and loans to Bangladesh are worth around $60 billion. For a developing country that in the last decade has begun to find its feet, the stakes involved for Bangladesh in the balancing act it is being made to play are high.

Writing in The Diplomat on 24 January, Shafi Md. Mostofa, associate professor at the University of Dhaka and adjunct lecturer at the University of New England, Australia, used the frequency of recent visits by US and Chinese senior officials to underline the pressures that Bangladesh has faced. He wrote, “The country has witnessed a flurry of visits from US and Chinese officials in recent weeks. On January 14, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Donald Lu was in Dhaka, where he held a series of meetings with political parties, senior officials, and civil society leaders. The previous week, Rear Admiral Eileen Laubacher, the senior director for South Asia at the White House’s National Security Council, was in Bangladesh on a four-day visit. She met Bangladesh’s Foreign Minister Abul Kalam Abdul Momen on January 9.

A day after Laubacher’s meeting with Momen, newly appointed Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang stopped over at Dhaka to meet his Bangladeshi counterpart at the airport. This was his first-ever visit abroad as foreign minister. The visit broke with Chinese diplomatic tradition. It is customary for Chinese foreign ministers to make an African country the destination of their first foreign visit each year, but this year, the new foreign minister touched down in Dhaka first. Although Qin was heading to Africa and the meeting with Momen was not an official visit, the Chinese foreign minister’s short halt in the Bangladeshi capital – he met Momen at the airport for less than an hour and in the middle of the night – was significant and did not go unnoticed in diplomatic circles in Dhaka and abroad. Soon after Qin’s visit, a high-level delegation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) led by the deputy head of the International Department of the CCP Central Committee, Chen Zhou, arrived in Bangladesh. The delegation held lectures interpreting the spirit of the 20th CCP National Congress”.

The Ukraine War has made things even more complex for Bangladesh.  Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center pointed out in Foreign Policy that “another major rivalry - between Moscow and Washington - now poses a test for Dhaka’s nonaligned foreign policy. Bangladesh will need to keep up robust relations with the United States while maintaining ties with Russia, a balancing act that will become more difficult the longer Russia’s war in Ukraine rages on”. A recent war of words that broke out between the US and Russia over Bangladesh prompted Foreign Minister Momen to say that Bangladesh does “not want Russia, the USA or any other country to interfere in our internal matters”. Kugelman believes that “At first glance, navigating the US-Russia rivalry may appear easier for Bangladesh... (as) it relies much more on Washington than it does on Moscow, economically speaking. The United States is the top importer of Bangladeshi products and its companies are the top source of foreign direct investment in Bangladesh. Its commercial cooperation with Russia mainly revolves around energy, especially nuclear power. But in a country with destructive power shortages, any foreign investment in energy is critical”. Kugelman postulated that “making concessions to both Washington and Moscow may become harder to do if the two sides start putting more pressure on Bangladesh”.

Within Bangladesh, protests organized by the BNP and the JEI at several places in the past weeks to press home their 10-point demands, including the formation of an election-time neutral government, demonstrated that the political space that these parties had been lamenting to international interlocutors was no longer available to them in Bangladesh was not really correct. If anything, both the BNP and the JEI are grappling with, and paying the price for, the vacuum caused by their top political leaderships languishing in prison for the graft they had indulged in during previous stints in power, or for the violence they had been involved in. If not in prison, they are living abroad due to an unwillingness to stand trial for their crimes in Bangladesh.

Between 2001 and 2006, the BNP – JEI combine had made Bangladesh synonymous with graft, and the country had figured at the top of Transparency International’s corruption perception index (CPI) for five consecutive years. BNP supremo Begum Khaleda Zia, who is presently incarcerated for corruption, and her son, Tarique Rahman, who is currently living in the United Kingdom (UK) to avoid Bangladeshi courts of justice, are still at the helm of the BNP. Given their conviction in a slew of corruption cases, the two will possibly not even be able to contest elections. Some analysts are of the view that this is the reason why they are not interested in preparing the party for elections, and would rather adopt the path of violent street protests to oust the elected government first. The game plan, Bangladeshi journalist Ajoy Dasgupta believes, is to bring down the government by force, then manipulate or coerce the judiciary to overturn their judicial verdicts and get their cases dropped.

Dr. Iftekharuzzaman, executive director of the anti-graft watchdog Transparency International Bangladesh, believes that retaining Begum Khaleda Zia and Tarique Rahman in the BNP’s top leadership “contradicts” the party’s 27-point outline for State reform, which includes a strong stance against corruption, and is a sign of “moral decay”. He pointed out that “In terms of moral position, I would say it is contradictory. They (the BNP) are speaking against corruption but running the party with those convicted”. Given the scale of the corruption that the two BNP leaders have been convicted of, Dr. Iftekharuzzaman’s views are not surprising. Even the former US Ambassador to Bangladesh, James F. Moriarty, had felt it proper and important to inform his government that the bribery, embezzlement, and culture of corruption that Tarique Rahman helped create and maintain in Bangladesh had directly and irreparably undermined US businesses, resulting in many lost opportunities. A leaked cable from Moriarty had noted that “His (Tarique Rahman’s) theft of millions of dollars in public money has undermined political stability in this moderate, Muslim-majority nation and subverted US attempts to foster a stable democratic government, a key objective in this strategically important region”. The Ambassador added that Tarique’s flagrant corruption had also seriously threatened specific US Mission goals.

In contrast, during Sheikh Hasina’s 13 years in power, Bangladesh has thrived as one of the fastest-growing economies in Asia, becoming the main supplier of garments to the West. The Bangladesh economy has today come a long way from 1972, when it was described by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as an “international basket case”. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina noted at an event earlier this week that Bangladesh had become the 35th largest economy in the world despite the global downturn due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. It has also moved 5 steps up in the global economic index despite the adverse international situation. Drawing attention to how this has benefitted the common Bangladeshi, and setting an ambitious target for the future, Hasina said, “We have been able to achieve our per capita income of US$ 2824. But, we don’t want to remain stagnant there. We have to attain at least US$ 12,000 per capita income by 2041”.

It is not just in the economic sphere that Bangladesh has made big strides during Sheikh Hasina’s tenure. It has also made notable gains in its ranking in the human development index, and its achievements in gender equality have been remarkable. Maternal mortality is down from 258 per thousand in 2010 to about 170. Female literacy in the age group 15 to 24 is 95.86% compared to 86.93% a decade ago. What is even more striking is that this figure is 3% more than males in the same age category. Female labour force participation is 46% of the total, and a large proportion of labour employed in the apparel sector, over 80%, is female. Dhaka-based author and journalist Syed Badrul Ahsan believes that yet another important element needs to be added to these figures. He said at a programme in Kolkata this week that “Now, another important element must be added to that – Modernity. Modernity is democracy, modernity is religious freedom, and most importantly, elimination of poverty. Bangladesh is moving towards modernity”.

Progress has also been visible in sectors on which the US and the West had expressed reservations. The protests currently being organized by the opposition parties in which thousands have been participating dilute the claim of denial of political space to them. Opposition protests have mostly been met with restraint by the government. Further, after an improvement in the overall law and order situation that was brought about over the past decade amidst allegations of high handedness, the recently published Human Rights Watch World Report 2023 observed that in Bangladesh, extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances had dropped dramatically in 2022. 

Even if the results of the Presidential elections seem to be a foregone conclusion, the next general elections in Bangladesh will be decided on the very factors on which the BNP and the JEI in their previous stints in power had been guilty of making a mess – countering corruption, maintaining economic growth despite the adverse international environment brought about by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, maintaining a balanced and strong foreign policy, and ensuring the safety and security of citizens.